An edited version of this review originally appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here.
Maintaining good communication – whether between governments of countries or two people in a relationship – isn’t always easy. Sometimes the mediation of an outside party is necessary.
For director Denis Villeneuve, it takes a visit aliens for humanity to discover its communicative flaws. At least, that’s the premise of “Arrival,” a film depicting a close encounters of a thrilling kind that takes the audience on a mesmerizing ride as intelligent as it is poignant.
Like some of the best sci-fi, “Arrival” utilizes an outlandish concept to make very relevant comments on the state of humanity, with Villeneuve deconstructing a concept as simple as communication by reminding us of the paranoia that can manifest when we take communication for granted.
The story is told through the eyes of Louise Banks, a linguistics professor recruited by the military, along with another expert in Jeremy Renner’s (“The Hurt Locker,” “The Avengers”)Ian Donnelly, to help communicate with extra terrestrial beings. We don’t know if these aliens come in peace; all we know is they come via one of 12 pods resembling a slice of fruit in different places around the globe. And every day they hover a few dozen feet above the surface, humanity grows even more weary.
With “Arrival,” Villeneuve begins to cement himself as one of the premiere directors in Hollywood at exploring deep themes through multilayered, provocative stories. Like “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” his latest is a slow-burning escalation towards a mind-bending, tense finish that eventually places a new connotation on its title.
To be clear, this isn’t particularly an alien invasion movie – our visitors never even set foot on Earth – and the audience shouldn’t expect the normal sort of blockbuster action associated with that moniker. These are thrills of a much more subdued kind.
Amy Adams (“Man of Steel,” “American Hustle”) gives a subtle but powerhouse performance as Banks, the ever-anxious but curious expert whose personal ties to the mission anchor themselves in her believable quest to be able to communicate with our visitors. Renner is also terrific in what has to be the most vulnerable role we’ve ever seen him in.
“Arrival” isn’t just thematically astounding; the film is totally immersive, engaging nearly all our senses. Conversations between characters through headsets limit outside noise. We feel as claustrophobic as Banks does when she enters the alien craft in a hazmat suit. The IMAX-worthy camerawork is sweeping and gorgeous, bold in portraying the film’s grand scale. The music is daringly ambiguous too; conveying a tone that is all at once threating and captivating.
The way “Arrival” plays with light, in particular, provides its own symbolic value. It makes excellent use of a dark, brooding aesthetic, with shadows playing a prominent role. Half-clouded faces and environments tease moral flaws, and the brightness associated with the spaceship’s interior resonates with the film’s central questions: Is language a gift, or a weapon?
In other words, it is very much like Villeneuve’s previous works as far as his focus on the visuals. It’s incredibly well-directed in that regard; all of the film’s elements work closely in tandem to deliver a memorable experience that rivals the best sci-fi of recent years, maybe decades.
“Arrival” is rated PG-13 for brief strong language
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker
Directed by Denis Villeneuve